Sam Mellinger

Barry Odom, Mizzou football, and the same mistakes

Barry Odom says his Tigers have work to do after tough loss to South Carolina

Missouri coach Barry Odom discusses the team’s devastating loss at South Carolina on Oct. 6, 2018.
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Missouri coach Barry Odom discusses the team’s devastating loss at South Carolina on Oct. 6, 2018.

The coach walks in carrying a Diet Coke and a scowl and there is nothing he can say in this moment to fix a season going the wrong way or erase the mistakes that created what is now another budding crisis. He knows that. So do those asking the questions, and so do those listening on radio. This is all familiar. A little too familiar.

This is not the first time Barry Odom has talked himself into calming down before discussing his Missouri football program publicly. This one might hurt more than most, and might ultimately be more damaging to his hold on the job at his alma mater. The anger from a 37-35 loss to South Carolina here on Saturday is more about repetition than acute pain.

This keeps happening, is the thing. This is Odom’s third season and his 30th game — 3-2 this season, and 14-16 overall — and he still has more of these tense postgame press conferences than wins that fans are proud of.

“I’m trying to put on a pretty good face right now because I’m not happy,” Odom said.

This could have been so different. Should have been so different. College seasons and coaching careers swing on games exactly like this. That’s particularly true for everyone below the SEC’s upper class. Mizzou has a defensive coordinator as head coach, a senior quarterback who turned down the NFL Draft, and was a slight favorite against a team with a backup quarterback.

Mizzou led by nine at halftime, against a backup quarterback. Good teams finish. Programs with a locker room full of athletes who talk constantly of learning from past blown opportunities shouldn’t lose this way.

Not again.

“We literally gave them the game,” Larry Rountree said.

The Tigers did not implode alone. They had help. A long touchdown run by Damarea Crockett was snipped by a surprising replay call, and a biblical rain in the third quarter turned the field into a pond. Lightning put a 76-minute delay into the fourth quarter.

But all of that was mere accomplice to Mizzou’s fall. Hard as it was to see how replay officials were so sure Crockett stepped out of bounds 10 yards short of the end zone, it’s impossible to defend what happened next — a false start, unsportsmanlike conduct, and another false start pushing Mizzou out of field-goal range, and then a dropped snap turning the punt into a 13-yard loss.

Difficult as the rain made it to move and throw, it did not force Drew Lock into what could be the worst throw of his terrific career — a pick-six to a running back who had fallen down on a screen play.

“I ended up seeing it mid-release that he fell,” Lock said. “I just have to put it in the ground.”

This is so Mizzou has become cliche, but this one had it all — blown leads with bursts of brilliance ultimately shot into the sun by a wicked combination of bad luck and worse mistakes.

MU kicker Tucker McCann hit a 57-yard field goal with 1:18 left, putting Mizzou up by one, but if you’ve watched the Tigers for long you are frustrated but also unsurprised at what happened next — a blown coverage allowed a tight end to go wide open down the seam for 27 yards, and a passive pass rush gave South Carolina backup quarterback Michael Scarnecchia plenty of time for another completion that set up the winning field goal from 33 yards.

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The details are just more painful. That tight end is from St. Louis. South Carolina kicker Parker White had never made a field goal longer than 38 yards before. Against Mizzou, he did that twice. McCann — whose 57-yarder had plenty of distance — missed from 25.

“Just keeping it real with you,” linebacker Terez Hall said. “I feel like we should’ve handled this team.”

The context gets worse. This is the second game in a row flooded with Mizzou mistakes, wiping out what could have (against Georgia) and should have (against South Carolina) been the kind of wins Odom can flash as progress.

Mizzou is at Alabama next week for a primetime kickoff, the most unwinnable assignment college football offers, which would make a third consecutive loss.

Three years in, Odom’s program should be further along. They are athletically strong, evidenced most obviously with an offensive line and trio of running backs combining for 293 yards on 39 carries.

In a different view, that would be encouraging. Talent is the cover charge for the high-stakes climb up the SEC standings, and Mizzou has enough. Clean up the mistakes and before Saturday you could’ve imagined eight wins, maybe nine or even 10.

Now, though, they must deal with survival. With morale. With focus. They know the challenge well.

“We’ve done it before, we’ve done it a thousand times,” Lock said.

“We’re not going to sit back and wave the white flag,” Odom said.

There is little doubt they spoke from their hearts. This group does play hard. They are wildly competitive, and proud. But that’s not the problem. The concern isn’t whether this group cares enough. The concern is why Odom is in his third season, his team making the same unforced mistakes, and talking about the same challenge of coming back from failure.

Opportunities aren’t forever, and that’s particularly true in college football. At some point, the story goes old.

Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.